To be a Burmese slave in Thailand By Simon Roughneen
SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand - Rolling up his right shirt sleeve to show a scarred
forearm, Than Zaw Oo recalls the beatings he endured onboard the Thai fishing
boat where he says he was held as indentured labor - in other words, a slave -
for almost three years.
"They beat me many times, sometimes a few times a week," he says. "In the end,
I just ran away after the captain accused me of stealing mobile phones."
Like many others who have worked at the low end of Thailand's fishing sector,
Than Zaw Oo is an immigrant worker. An ethnic
Burman from Myanmar's southern Mon state, he was first lured to sea on a false
promise and misguided hope of escaping the economic depression in his home
country, also known as Burma.
"The broker told me I could earn 20,000 baht [US$666] but only had to work
onboard for four months," he says, referring to the Myanmar agents who, often
for an extortionate fee, offer to find jobs for their desperate compatriots who
cross into Thailand seeking work. Anywhere between two to three million Myanmar
migrants are currently working in Thailand, along with several hundred
thousands of Cambodians and Laos.
The agents, however, are usually human traffickers who often pocket the
salaries promised to the workers. Thousands are held against their will - as
slaves - on fishing boats or in factories or as commercial sex workers,
according to human-rights groups.
In theory, Thailand's labor laws should prevent this from happening. But a
cabal of corrupt cops, bent brokers and exploitative employers has for decades
made easy pickings of many Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao migrants who in their
economic plight often cross into Thailand illegally.
"The ship captain held onto my passport," recounts Than Zaw Oo. "He kept
everybody's, so we could not escape even when he came to land." Every six or
seven months the vessel docked at one of several small Indonesian islands, the
names of which Than Zaw Oo - who at 23-years-old cannot read or write - does
not recall. "I cannot speak much Thai," he recounts, "I did not know from day
to day what was going on."
After one beating too many, he finally went into hiding almost three years
after first going to sea. "We were in Indonesia again," he says. "There were
other Burmese there, I told them what was happening and they gave me somewhere
Three months later, without any official documentation, he returned to Thailand
assisted by the same compatriots who hid him on the unnamed Indonesian island.
For all his time at sea, he says he came back with only 21,000 baht, as well as
scars on his head, arms and legs. "The captain and some of the men did this
with a broken bottle," he claims.
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the United Nations rapporteur on human trafficking is
currently in Thailand at the invitation of the Thai government to report on the
country's efforts in addressing its trafficking problem. According to a leaked
2009 US diplomatic cable from the Bangkok embassy, the Thai government
"recognizes the seriousness of the problem". Thailand is currently on the US
State Department's human trafficking watch list.
As of May 2011, there were only five confirmed convictions in Thailand for
trafficking-related offences since 2009, when eight convictions were reported,
according to the latest US State Department report on global trafficking
trends, which was released in June. The conviction numbers are small given the
apparent scale of the problem. Siwanoot Soitong of Thailand's Anti-Labor
Trafficking Project told Asia Times Online that "an estimated 1,000 plus,
mostly Burmese, are trafficked into the Thai fishing industry annually".
No rights, no hope
Thailand is now in the process of implementing a registration scheme for
migrant workers, which in theory should reduce the scope for brokers and police
to traffic and extort migrants, as those without papers are the most vulnerable
to predation. The scheme ran from mid-June to mid-July this year and almost
700,000 Myanmar migrants registered during that month, along with another
200,000 Cambodians and Laos.
While the process has been hailed as a success, it has also apparently resulted
in some damaging side-effects. According to the Thailand section of the latest
US State Department survey of global trafficking trends, "Observers remained
concerned that the process to legalize migrant workers with its associated
fees, as well as costs imposed by poorly regulated and unlicensed labor
brokers, increased the vulnerability of migrant workers to trafficking and debt
An illustrative case is that of Saw, a 32-year-old ethnic Kachin originally
from Myitkina in Myanmar's troubled north, currently the site of fighting
between the Myanmar army and insurgent Kachin Independence Army. He spoke with
Asia Times Online under a pseudonym inside a mosquito-blown tin shack on stilts
at the edge of a muddy building site in Pathumthani province, about an hour's
drive from central Bangkok.
He spoke just three days after fleeing his previous job after a broker demanded
an additional 2,000 baht above the official 3,800 baht government fee for
processing his registration with Thai authorities. "I just have the copies of
the papers," he says, "the agent has the originals." He says he was threatened
with physical violence if he did not pay the extra tariff. In his own words, he
"panicked and ran away".
Such cases could become more commonplace when a plan by Thailand's new Yingluck
Shinawatra-led government to implement a nationwide 300 baht (US$10) per day
minimum wage comes into force. While details of the plan are yet to be
finalized, it is unlikely that migrant workers will be eligible for the higher
Most migrant workers from Thailand's Southeast Asian neighbors already work in
low-paid, attritional sectors - such as fishing, construction and
garment-making - that many Thais shun due to low pay and substandard working
conditions. While the millions of Thais currently working on a paltry 100-200
baht (US$3.33-$6.66) per day will welcome the rise, the concern is that
employers will try to avoid paying a higher minimum wage by recruiting and
hiring more migrants, which in turn could add impetus to Thailand's human
trafficking and slave labor vortex.
Than Zaw Oo, the migrant worker who escaped slave labor conditions on a Thai
fishing boat, is now washing clothes for a living and earning around 100 baht a
day. He says he just wants to save up enough money to one day return to
Myanmar. For him, there is little hope in either country as the cycle of
poverty and exploitation reaches deeper into his family.
"My mother died while I was away at sea," he reveals. "After my mum died, [my]
stepfather sold my young sister to another family, somewhere in [Yangon], for
25,000 kyat [US3,740]. He probably just wanted the money for drink," said Than
Zaw Oo, who signed off the interview with a determined "I will go back and find
Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is
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